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Uncovering the Illegal Employment Practices in Athletic Departments Pt. 1

I was preparing for my hour-drive home last week and before I even put my seatbelt on, my cellphone rang. My commute is prime phone call time that must cease the moment I walk through the door at home and enter "mom mode". 

I picked up and on the other end was a frantic head coach of more than a decade in their sport, begging for help. 

I know the drill, so I started the clock.

Experience tells me it will take the coach at least 5 minutes before there is a pause in their story. This will be followed by 5 more minutes until they calm down and in the final 10, I get to speak and tell them they are not my only coach call this week or month. This offers them a moment of relief. 

This is followed by my 5-minute feedback in their next steps. 

Regardless of how it all breaks down, the conversations typically start the same way. 

"Hi Coach, I am completely blindsided and I don't know what to do. They said I could resign or be fired. I gave them ____ years and I didn't even get an explanation." 

These are the words, almost verbatim of the 4 coaches I'm referring to and if I told you the total number who have experienced this, this year alone, you wouldn't believe me. 

About 90% of my coaches that contact me are women but lately, more males are needing help at all levels, in all sports. 

This is a telling shift. 

Male coaches in revenue sports are now seeing what women coaches have been experiencing for decades and the only difference is, more often than not, the males choose to fight back in some legal form. Based on my experience, male coaches appear to possess more confidence that they will be able to find another position even if they seek litigious remedy. 

This is seldom the case for female coaches as we are considered more expendable within the department and have grown up in athletic environments that have conditioned us to produce more with less. 

Regardless, the movement is here and no one is immune. In all four cases, like so many others, there was either a new president at the helm who received a parental complaint or a new athletic director looking to swiftly eradicate any potential problems that could disrupt the harmony they desire to achieve at their new desk. 

In all four cases, like so many others, there was either a new president the helm who received a parental complaint or a new athletic director looking to swiftly eradicate any potential problems that could disrupt the harmony they desire to achieve at their new desk. 

This is our new normal. Leadership in education is more enamored with the idea of satisfaction and conflict-free operations than it is in deciphering truth from limited perspectives and uninformed opinions. 

I work with coaches everyday who miss the red flags that lead to their positional endings and what is even worse is that our leadership in athletic departments appear to believe their singular unwanted situations concerning parent complaints and athlete accusations are somehow, unique. 

More presidents and athletic directors are unconditioned and inexperienced in dealing with all the potential pitfalls associated with groups of young adults working toward an outcome. They fear short term bashing on social media more than lawsuits by their own people. They hate looking bad more than they care about dismissing honest employees. These leadership trends have provided them short attention spans and zero tolerance for anything growth or conflict-resolution related. 

Their response to these trends is not to commit to finding the real story, it's to either blindside that employee or drain them in the process enough to pressure them to leave. 

This pressured group is often less surprised because they have been systematically hunted for some time leading up to their dismissal. 

Both approaches have a series of noticeable red flags that culminate to messy firings riddled with legal mistakes or forced resignations based on non-existent employment law due diligence by their institution. 

This is not a sudden issue of dislike for the employee personally, rather a systemic issue involving the avoidance of conflict, the absence of tools to create resolution, the elimination of communication and fear of liability. These fears are often followed up with exhibited departmental and cultural behaviors that morph into red flags. These same red flags are issued by administrators and missed or dismissed by our coaches for a myriad of reasons.  

Top 10 Red Flags: 

  1. There is a change in leadership and traditional channels that were open to the coach for offering feedback or response gradually close or are no longer open. 

  2. Administrators conduct side conversations with the coach that are difficult to document and those inquiries or concerns in writing go unanswered. 

  3. Small tasks or processes the coach has historically maintained in their culture with positive results, start to become questioned and micromanaged by their leadership

  4. Specific team rules of decorum or standards become a point of contention with indirect suggestions to amend or delete 

  5. An abrupt drop in communication by the coach's sport advisor or supervisor 

  6. Conference changes, shifts in competition have athletic directors hungry for a press conference of a bigger hire which triggers frequent and uncharacteristic scrutiny of performance 

  7. The coach is having to work overtime to justify record, role and coaching philosophies to their superiors

  8. The coach is unexplainably, physically and emotionally drained more than usual at certain points in the season. This is our intuition and body talking to us yet, we usually refuse to listen. 

  9. Survey results previously used as a secondary or tertiary tool have become the primary measure of your role as the coach 

  10. General statements referencing or characterizing the program's team culture are made more frequently without specific examples being offered 

Each of these red flags involves an intentional elimination or decrease in communication or effect of that change. 

Athletic administrators are now approaching conflict by either disappearing completely from the picture and minimizing communication or working overtime to press coaches on smaller issues that assist in building up inventory leading to dismissal or investigation. Either format is an indication that there is desire to move in another direction rather than work or communicate with the coach. 

Administrators are more likely to move toward eliminating a person rather than the actual problem. 


Legal literacy as an employee is your best weapon and since we are a population that likes to coach far more than we desire to litigate, noticing these early red flags can be critical. 

Most coaches circulate the urgency in documentation as a key combatant to staving off mischaracterizations of the most prominent situations. While I have been known to be a staunch proponent of this, I do urge coaches to understand that the kind of documentation being recorded and harbored in our own internal files, almost never makes it into the right hands. 

Documentation of player meetings, team meetings, parent complaints, correspondence between medical staff and athletic trainers should have a secondary party viewing rather than just a file the coach writes up and stores. 

Often when coaches are accused, our own files and records including any assistant coach or staff testimonies to support our narrative, are seldom reviewed nor are proper interviews conducted. 

These are classic missteps and oversights that department figures neglect to solicit because they are either not versed properly in conducting these interviews or it is avoided because the product of this collection weakens the narrative they are working to develop for dismissal. 

Keep a facts-only file that your administrator has access to and send them the link once a month in a shared drive. These facts have dates, names, who was present and short narratives on the topics. This is not the place to write long, drawn out stories or feelings. Stick to the facts so when or if HR comes knocking, your athletic administrator cannot claim they were unaware of the ongoing developments. Your own personal file that is only viewed by you will not protect you. 

Does this sound familiar to you or do you know a coach who has experienced these red flags? 

If so, you do not have to wait to be fired or proposed with the option to be terminated or resign before you do something about it. 

To help you stay healthy and vibrant in this profession I will continue this series to educate on the levels to which athletic departments break the law and make some of our best and brightest feel they are at their worst and darkest moments in this profession.

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